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The Rise of eSports



On the evening of August 8, 2015, a 16-year-old Pakistani kid named Sumail Hassan laid down his headphones and stepped away from his computer where he’d been playing a video game called Dota 2. Fireworks exploded around him. He hugged the friends he’d been playing with. They had just won $6.6 million.

With a neck pillow perched around the back of his head, gum in his mouth, and a dazed look on his face, he descended the steps from a glass booth in the center of Seattle’s KeyArena. Four and a half million people watched on screens around the world as he shook hands with his defeated opponents, before walking to the middle of the podium and raising the trophy above his head.

“What does this mean to you?” the host of the tournament, Kaci Aitchison asked him, thrusting a microphone into his face.

“It just means everything for me. We got it now. I’m feeling pretty excited,” he babbled, a little incoherently.

You can hardly blame him. Hassan’s family of eight had moved from Karachi to Illinois just three years beforehand. Crammed into a three-bedroom apartment, with money tight, they found the move a struggle. But in his first month in the United States, Hassan had already earned $200,000 in prize money.

He’d been playing Dota 2 since the age of 7, encouraged by his brother Yawar, who also plays professionally. In the world of Dota, teams of five characters fight to be the first to knock over a building in the enemy’s base called an ‘Ancient’, but that doesn’t explain the half of it.

In just one battle, a bleeping globe of light could teleport a demonic horseman into the fray while a sea monster causes tentacles to erupt from the ground — all while a relentlessly-grinning disco thespian zaps his enemies with lightning-infused clones of himself. It’s ridiculous, fast and furious, and simultaneously rewards both deep strategic thought and supersonic reflexes.

An online tournament is held every other week or so, where fans can watch matches through services like YouTube and Twitch, accompanied by professional commentators who explain the intricacies of different strategies. Every month or two, a larger tournament is held in a stadium where teams are flown in to from around the globe and players can enjoy the atmosphere in person, with huge screens depicting what’s going on in the game.

In less than a month, Sumail and his team Evil Geniuses will return to defend their title, but it won’t be easy. Since their win in Seattle, the team has been rocked by internal strife and the departure of several key players. They crashed out in 13th place at a tournament in Manila just a month ago, but just like in any sport, losses show the real strength of a team. Soon, we’ll find out whether Sumail and his teammates have the grit and determination to pull it back, or whether it’s time for a new squad to step into the limelight.

 People have been playing video games competitively for many decades. The earliest known competition dates all the way back to Spacewar, one of the first ever video games, where players take on the role of one of two ships and engage in a dogfight around the gravity well of a star. An “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics” took place at Stanford University on October 19, 1972. First prize, which went to team champions Slim Tovar and Robert E. Maas, and free-for-all winner Bruce Baumgart, was a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone.

In 1980, Atari organized a Space Invaders championship that attracted more than 10,000 participants, and, around the same time, an American businessman named Walter Day founded an organization called Twin Galaxies to keep track of high scores in arcade games. By 1982, video game tournaments were already being televised on the show Starcade, and particularly skilled players were featured in the pages of magazines like Life and Time.

Netrek — a 16-player, real-time strategy game that could be played across the web—debuted in 1988. Players had to destroy their opponents’ spaceships and take over enemy planets. Wired described it as “the first online sports game.” A year later in 1994, players competed at the World Game Championships in digital analogs of real-world sports, like NBA Jam and Virtual Racing.

But it wasn’t until the second half of the 1990s that e-sports really became a phenomenon in its own right. Titles like Quake, Unreal Tournament, Counter-Strike, and Warcraft grew hugely in popularity thanks to their multiplayer focus, and skilled players like Stevie “KillCreek” Case, Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel, and Tomo Ohira began to earn serious money for winning competitions. Sponsors began offering players money to wear their logos or use their equipment while playing.

Around the same time all this was going on in the West, the 1997 Asian financial crisis was in full swing. Many governments responded by beginning large infrastructure projects, including the rollout of new broadband technology capable of far faster connection speeds than the modems that had been common previously. At the same time, high unemployment rates meant there were large numbers of people looking for something to do while out of work.

The result was massive growth in the pastime of playing games at internet cafes. Players competed over different games, with a real-time strategy title called Starcraft proving particularly popular. Soon, East Asia (and particularly South Korea) had a huge e-sports scene of its own with matches regularly broadcast on television. In 2000, the Korean E-sports Association was founded as a wing of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism.

Elsewhere, however, mainstream acceptance of video games as a sport didn’t come nearly as fast as acceptance of them as a cultural force. In the West, mass-market adoption of games consoles like the Playstation and Xbox reduced the influence of e-sports, which are mostly PC-based. In the mid-2000s there were several sporadic attempts to broadcast matches on television in Europe and the United States, but most proved short-lived.

The rise of streaming video, however, changed everything. With the launch of services like YouTube and (gaming-specific streaming site), it suddenly became easy to follow a tournament being played on the other side of the world. It also allowed notable players to broadcast their games live, giving them another opportunity to sell sponsorship and make a living. Commentators, or “casters” as they’re known within e-sports, began to attract followings of their own.

Since then, the growth of e-sports has been extraordinary. Streaming video has allowed the scene to get so huge that mainstream acceptance is no longer a consideration, let alone a priority, for most players and fans. They don’t care if it’s on television or not, because watching a game on Twitch is a superior experience anyway — you can watch at a time that suits you, pause in the middle of the action, discuss the game in an accompanying chat room and more. Without Twitch, which Amazon bought in 2014 for close to $1bn, e-sports would be a shadow of its present-day strength.

What’s particularly interesting about e-sports is how it’s distributed around the world. Some nations excel in digital battle, while their neighboring countries totally fail to do so. To get a grip on how, I grabbed data from E-Sports Earnings — a community-driven website which tracks publicly-available data on prize winnings across different games. While it doesn’t include, for example, a player’s sponsorship income, it gives a good idea of how prizes are distributed and therefore the level of success that different players have enjoyed.

Here are a couple of charts based on the world’s top 500 e-sports earners, aggregated by country. When you look at the number of players each country has in the top 500, South Korea, the US and China dominate. That’s not too surprising, with their large populations. So I divided my database by population and found something rather interesting — the Nordic nations dominate instead. South Korea still ranks highly (thanks to its early investment in broadband) but northern European nations score significantly better. In Sweden, if you took a million people at random from the population, almost five of them would be professional e-sports players.

 So let’s say you were a young, skilled player (perhaps living in a Nordic country) and you wanted to “go pro” to earn piles of cash. Statistically speaking, you’d want to play Dota 2 — E-sports Earnings’ data shows that it has by far the highest median lifetime earnings than any other game — more than $350,000.

Dota 2 tournaments simply pay better, and the reason for that is because amateur players contribute to its largest prize pools. Dota is totally free to play, though you can pay to customize the appearance of your characters, and a few other cosmetic tweaks. A few times a year, its publisher Valve Software also sells a ‘Battle Pass’ that includes a bundle of customization options, and 25 percent of the cost of each pass goes into the prize pool. In August 2015, Valve offered up a prize pool of $1.6 million for the tournament won by Evil Geniuses, but that swelled to $18.4 million once Battle Pass purchases were added.

Looking down the list of high-earning games is interesting, because it’s like looking back through history. Some of the titles are rising in popularity, some are falling, some are distinctly dead. But they’ve all had a major part to play in the sweeping narrative of e-sports over the years, with hundreds of players having given up substantial portions of their life to them. Some with success, some with failure, but all with profound love for their sport.

 Let’s talk about success and failure. When you look at a histogram of lifetime earnings among the top 500 e-sports players, you can see that becoming a millionaire is not likely to happen for the overwhelming majority of players. According to the data from E-sports Earnings, most top players make less than 400,000 in prize money over their lifetime.

That lifetime of earnings is about as short as that of a traditional athlete. One of Sumail’s teammates in Evil Geniuses, Clinton ‘Fear’ Loomis, is known jokingly as the “old man of Dota”. He’s 28. Once past their mid-20s, most players either take up coaching or analyst roles, move into the business end of the industry, or retire from the scene entirely.

 So while a young, skilled gamer who wants to drop out of university and go pro can now point their parents to multiple other stories of players who did the same and are now wealthy beyond belief, there are, of course, far more examples where it hasn’t worked out like that. Competition is more fierce than it has ever been and it today takes substantial personal investment and sacrifice to become a well-known player.

Unfortunately, that means cheating scandals in e-sports are about as common as they are in real sports. Even though most major competitions now have officials monitoring for unauthorized hardware or software running on a computer, many high-tier players have been banned and even fined over the years for cheating or fixing matches for profit.

That’s not the only problematic issue that e-sports has in common with “regular” sports. Doping has become a recent topic of debate, with many players using stimulants to boost concentration and reaction times, or sedatives to remain calm under pressure. One e-sports executive recently admitted that it’s common for some players to take as many as three different drugs before a competition.

It’s also hard to avoid noticing that the e-sports scene is almost entirely male. Gendered harassment, sexism, and homophobia are commonly seen as part of the culture, even by some pro players. The few female pros that have found success are often characterized as having done so “in spite of” their gender, and there are only a handful of openly gay players. Not enough high-profile figures are willing to challenge the status quo in this regard, in fear of the backlash they might receive from fans, and as a result it’s hard to see this changing in the future. Being an e-sports fan too often involves turning a blind eye to unpleasant behavior.

I got into e-sports a little over four years ago. Some friends and I were in a pub discussing a game called Dota 2 that we’d all heard about but no one had actually played. We resolved to give it a try (one of my friends chronicled the hilarious results here), and it somehow stuck with me for much longer than most other games. I discovered that beyond the steep learning curve lay a complex tapestry of game mechanics, obscure knowledge, and lightning-fast reflexes. It was a game I could learn but never master. I loved it, and within a year I was watching pro gamers play on Twitch and YouTube.

To date, I’ve played more than 880 hours of Dota 2, but I must have spent far, far longer than that watching other people play it online. Once or twice a week I’ll spend a lunchtime watching one of my favorite teams (go Alliance!) play a match. Often I’ll have it on in the background, muted on the TV, while I work. When a big tournament is on and Alliance is playing, I’ll sometimes decline social invitations because I want to watch them live. I don’t tell people that, of course. It’s seen as somehow weird to stay home and watch people playing a video game—despite it being totally fine to stay home and watch football.

I’ve branched out occasionally to try and watch other e-sports. I went to the WCS 2012 Starcraft II finals in Stockholm and enjoyed it tremendously, but it never hooked me enough to keep me following the scene. I’ve watched a little bit of Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Rocket League when it’s been on, more out of curiosity than anything else, and they were entertaining, but it’s tricky to find the time to follow more than one game with any real commitment, and Dota is the one I know well. I’ve invested time in learning it, and I’m enjoying the rewards of that investment.

So in closing, I should probably recommend a few e-sports to get into for those of you who are curious enough to read got this far down the article. One common issue with spectating many e-sports is that it’s hard to get a good feeling of what’s going on unless you’ve played a little yourself. So if in doubt, go with what looks like it would be most fun to play.

Otherwise, if you have lots of time, Dota 2 is probably the biggest e-sport in the world right now. It’s deeper and more complex than its rivals, and requires a lot of investment from the viewer, but the rewards are huge. If you want to get a taste of how good it gets, watch the fifth match in the best-of-five grand final between Alliance and Na’vi in 2013. There’s a reason any game between those two teams is referred to as Dota’s very own El Clásico.

If you prefer something more traditionally game-like, look into Hearthstone — a digital card game published by Blizzard Entertainment. It’s growing fast, and matches tend to last only a few minutes, making it easier to fit into your day. You can also play it on tablet computers, for when you’re bored at work. Start out by watching this ThijsNL play Savjz at KFC Spring in 2015, with the former battling for his life in a nail-biter of a match.

Finally, if you prefer less of a time investment and want something you can understand immediately, try Rocket League. It’s football with cars in microgravity, and doesn’t get a lot more complicated than that. In 2015, Cosmic Aftershock played Kings of Urban in the grand finals of MLG. The prize pool was just $500, but it didn’t stop both teams playing out of their minds. You’ll be on the edge of your seat.

Now, over to you. I’m sure you have your own ideas about what e-sports people should get into (especially if you play League of Legends and are annoyed that I spent most of this article banging on about Dota)


About the Author

This article was written by Duncan Geere, Gothenburg-based freelance science, technology and culture journalist. Editor at


Women on Top in Tech – Daphne Ng, CEO of JEDTrade



(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Daphne Ng is the CEO of JEDTrade, a blockchain technology company focused on trade, supply chain, and financial inclusion projects in ASEAN. She is also the Scretary-General at ACCESS and Exco. of Singapore Fintech Association

What makes you do what you do?
I was introduced to blockchain technology in 2016 after I left my corporate banking career after 10 years. It was my mentor who first got me interested in this technology, which I then went on to delve further into, on its potential applications in the lending and trade finance space – domains where I came from.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
Being in the space for 2 years and actively involved in the ecosystem, I was able to bring on the projects, network and a good degree of thought leadership in this vertical. Early on in the startup journey, our team faced many challenges. And to me, the key to rising above failures are two essential factors – resilience and support. While resilience is innate, I received a lot of help be it in terms of connections or advice. ‘Nobody succeeds without help’ rings very true for me.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
From the start, I focused on my domain expertise in trade finance and the application construct of how blockchain and DLT can be applied to these use cases. Also, my strategy from the start was to build a technology company made up of 80% tech and engineers, which is also our key competitive advantage today. At the end of the day, deliverables are about strategy and execution, which includes building and leading an ‘A’ team.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
I have many mentors, which includes our company advisors (all of whom are well-known in this industry) and mostly informal mentors I meet via my connections, and on various occasions and circumstances. Creating opportunities also means putting myself in the right place, at the right time. And in my case, these were mostly organic and genuine friendships formed from the initial connection.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
To me, a match in values is very important. It also takes humility to ask for help and be willing to listen to advice, which is important in order for mentorships to be successful – be it formal or informal.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I love this question! I am passionate about building strong teams and helping my people grow. I abide by the 3Rs when identifying talents: resourcefulness, resilience and right values. And then I invest in the ‘potential’ and this means giving them room to lead, make decisions and take risks.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
My support of diverse talents, skillsets and characters can be seen in the make-up of our core team – all helming specific roles and each bringing their own value to the table. We need the sum of all parts to build a great company.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
Great leaders emerge in times of failures and challenges, never abandoning the team, and always putting the team’s interests before her own. And I consciously live by these mottos every day.

Advice for others?
My advice to other entrepreneurs: be resolute and dare to be different. If you are going to follow others, then you will end up on the same path as them. No right or wrong; but I would rather chart my own path. This June, we are officially launching our blockchain project, Jupiter Chain (, which have garnered much interest in the industry, even before we made it public. We believe this project is the epitome of marrying innovation with practical implementation, and we want to be the first to truly operationalize blockchain for our ecosystem projects in this region.

If you’d like to get in touch with Daphne Ng, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn:

To learn more about JEDTrade, please click here.

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Callum Connects

Jace Koh, Founder of U Ventures



Jace Koh believes cash flow is the lifeblood of your business. Understanding it will enhance your ability to run and manage your business.

What’s your story?
My name is Jace Koh and I am the Founder of U Ventures. I’ve always been inclined towards investment and entrepreneurship. I’ve played a hand in starting businesses across these industries – professional services, cloud integration, software and music. I believe that succeeding in business is tough, but that’s what makes the rewards even sweeter.

What excites you most about your industry?
Everything excites me. These are my beliefs:

  • Why is accounting important?
    The accounting department is the heart. Cash flow is like blood stream, it pumps blood to various parts of the body like cash flow is pumped to various departments and/or functions in a business. It is vital to the life and death of the business.
  • Is accounting boring?
    Accountants are artists too. They paint the numbers the way they want them to be.
  • What makes a good accountant?
    A good accountant can tell you a story about the business by looking at the numbers.
  • Why is budgeting and projection important?
    Accountants are like fortune tellers, they can predict the numbers and if you wish to understand your business and make informed decisions, feel free to speak to our friendly consultants to secure a meeting.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore, and here’s where I want to be.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore is my favourite city. We have great legal systems in place, good security and people with integrity. Most importantly, we have a government that fosters a good environment for doing business. I recently went for a cultural exchange programme in Hong Kong to learn more about their startups. I found out that the Hong Kong government generally only supports local business owners in terms of grants. They’ve recently been more lenient and changed the eligibility to include all businesses that have at least 50% local shareholding. But comparing that to Singapore, the government only requires a 30% local shareholding to obtain government support. In the early days of starting a business, all the support you can get is precious. It’s great that we have a government that understands that.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
The best time ever to plant a tree was 10 years ago as the tree would have grown so big to provide you with shelter and all. When is the next best time to plant a tree? It is today. Because in 10 years time, the tree would have grown big enough to provide you shelter and all.

Who inspires you?
Jack Ma. His journey to success is one of the most inspiring as it proves that with determination and great foresight, even the poorest can turn their lives around. I personally relate to his story a lot, and this is my favourite quote from him, “If you don’t give up, you still have a chance. Giving up is the greatest failure.”

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I’ve faced multiple rejections throughout my business journey, and recently came across a fact on Jack Ma about how he was once rejected for 32 different jobs. It resonated very deeply and taught me the importance of tenacity, especially during tough times.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Nothing. I live a life with no regrets. Everything I do, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, happy or sad, and regardless of outcome, it’s a lesson with something to take away.

How do you unwind?
I love to pamper myself through retail therapy and going for spas. I also make a conscious effort to take time off work to have a break outside to unwind as well as to uncloud my mind. This moment of reflection from time to time helps me see more clearly on how I can improve myself.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Taiwan! Good food with no language barriers and the people are great!

Everyone in business should read this book:
I don’t really read books. Mostly, I learn from my daily life and interactions with hundreds of other business owners. To me, people tell the most interesting stories.

Shameless plug for your business:
We’re not just corporate secretaries, we’re “business doctors.”
U Ventures is a Xero certified advisory firm that goes beyond traditional accounting services to provide solutions for your business. You can reach us on our website:

How can people connect with you?
Converse to connect. You can reach me via email at [email protected] or alternatively, on LinkedIn here:

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
Download free copies of his books here:

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